Colombia's Glaciers on Pace to Disappear Within 25 Years

Oct 6, 2009

Looking at pictures of the Andean ridges, running like exposed spinal columns down the Western flank of Latin America, one is struck immediately by their white tips.

Soon, pictures are going to be the only way to see that whiteness.

Peruvian glaciers have long been known to be melting; Bolivia's Chacaltaya glacier is fast disappearing; and now experts say Colombia is on pace to lose all of its Andean glaciers in the next 25 years if current trends continue.

"There's been a sharp downward trend in snow coverage of several of Colombia's big glaciers particularly since 1985. If current rates continue, Colombia won't have any glaciers left by 2035," Ricardo Lozano, head of the Colombian Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies, told a conference last month.

Lozano says the estimate now has a 90 percent probability of being correct. It's a far firmer stance than one taken even in 2005, when the government was using the phrase "may disappear." In 1983, the five major glaciers in El Cocuy national park were expected to last at least 300 years.

Glacial disappearance would have disastrous effects on Colombia's power-generating capacity. The country generates 73 percent of its electricity from hydro power, much of it from Andean glacial melt. The effects of the glaciers' disappearance on water supply is less clear—the first flush of increased glacial melt will provide a short-term injection of clean-water into Colombian rivers via glacial run-off, but in the long-term will almost certainly lead to at least some increased water stress.

This problem won't just be limited to Colombia, nor will "water stress" be the end of the problems. IPCC projections suggest that by 2020, more than 1.5 billion people will face such water-stress, including between 7 and 77 million Latin Americans. IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri adds,

"Inherent in these projections is the potential for conflicts and the disruption of peace."

Not mere speculation. Columbia University scholar Marc Levy has found that decreased rainfall correlates with increased warfare. As a 2005 study that he and other researchers conducted notes,

We find that at the global scale there is a highly significant relationship between rainfall deviations and the likelihood of outbreak of a high-intensity internal war. When rainfall is significantly below normal, the likelihood of conflict outbreak is significantly elevated in the subsequent year.

The coordinator for Greenpeace Latin America, Gustavo Ampugnani points out that climate change's effects on Colombia won't be limited to glacial disappearance. Ampugnani explained that world climate change will have sharp and irreversible effects in Colombia, "in particular, in the high moorlands — known as Paramos — which are one of the world's most vulnerable ecosystems. It is estimated that 75% of the Paramos will vanish if temperature continues to rise."

It's almost idealistic the way the conditional "if" slips into the discourse. Ampugnani probably hadn't clasped his hands on the latest preliminary UNEP summation, which would probably dispel the conditional phrase. The report says,

The equilibrium warming above pre-industrial temperatures that the world will observe is 2.4 degrees Celsius — even if GHG concentrations had been fixed at their 2005 concentration levels and without any other anthropogenic forcing such as the cooling effect of aerosols.

Still, Ampugnani's proposals are fairly radical, at least compared to what the U.S. and the EU consider to be reasonable negotiating positions. He's suggested that Colombia demand that emissions peak in 2015, drop 40 percent by 2020, and approach zero by mid-century.

Some in the Colombian government are thinking in similar terms. Andrea García, climate advisor to the Minister of Environment, Housing and Territorial Development, said that Colombia's proposal to Copenhagen would commit countries to 40 percent reductions by 2020 and 95 percent reductions by 2050 — essentially, a post-carbon economy. Garcia added,

"there is a very large contest between the traditional model of development and one that is sustainable."

To symbolize this contest — and to highlight the fact that time is running out — Greenpeace brought a giant hourglass to Bogota to call attention to the severity and urgency of the issue, and to attempt to impel Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to sign on to more radical measures.

Even if he does so, as his environmental minister has suggested he will, it won't be possible to re-freeze the Andean glaciers, the product of millennia of compacted snow-melt, solidifying and hardening into a thick mass. As the world heats and dries, such steady sources of water will be missed — all the more reason to take measures now to try to slow the warming process before it causes damage to yet other natural systems that'll be impossible to reverse.

 

See also:

Conflicts Break Out in the Andes as Glaciers, and Their Water, Disappear

Bolivia's Chacaltaya Glacier Melts to Nothing 6 Years Early

Greenpeace Expedition Documents Disappearing Greenland Glacier

America's National Parks: Canaries in the Climate Change Coal Mine

Video: Everest's Melting Glaciers

(Photo: Andean glacier by Calyponte /Wikimedia Commons; Map: USGS 2007)

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